Escape Velocity

A curated Collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction Media



Peter: In the summer of 2018, Jop and I walked into the famous Science-Fiction Bookstore (don’t worry, it also sells fantasy) on Gamla Stan in Stockholm, after a week-long hiking trip along the northern section of the Kungsleden in Lapland (if we were recommending hiking trails on this website, that one would come with a five star rating). Having had ample opportunity to discuss our fantasy libraries on the trail, we discovered that neither of us had ever read anything by Brandon Sanderson – which is at least somewhat remarkable, given that he is one of the big names currently in the fantasy genre. This was something we had agreed to remedy.  After reading some cover blurbs, we settled on The Final Empire – we both picked up a copy, and left the store with high hopes. 

It took us a while to read all three parts in the Mistborn Trilogy (not to say: nearly three years), but some time ago I finally finished the final chapters of The Hero of Ages, and it is time to have a proper discussion on Sanderson in general and the Mistborn Trilogy in particular – beware: spoilers are incoming. I think there are several points that we want to touch upon – firstly, our opinions, but also Sanderson’s style, his worldbuilding, his plotting, and religious influences in his works.

Without further ado, let’s get going!

Read our reviews of the individual books of The Mistborn Trilogy here:

What we thought

To kick things off, I think it is fair to say that neither of us was blown away by the Mistborn Trilogy. To be honest, I was even somewhat disappointed. Because Sanderson’s name is so prominent on online fora, because he took on the mantle of Robert Jordan in finishing the Wheel of Time, and because I have a couple of friends that religiously read his works, I had expected Sanderson to be one of the best out there. For me, the Mistborn Trilogy does not quite live up to that standard. We can delve into why in more detail later, but at their core, it felt as if Sandersons books failed to come alive – they were cleverly constructed, but lacked soul.

You’re right. Although the books were entertaining enough and contained some interesting premises, I ultimately wasn’t blown away by them. In that respect, I do share some of your disappointment. Frankly, I wonder if we would have enjoyed the books more if we hadn’t had any expectations about Sanderson beforehand. 

Still, all in all I didn’t think the Mistborn Trilogy was bad. I also thought that the books lacked soul, but they are solid Fantasy books nonetheless.

Yes, before I throw the baby out with the bathwater, I need to reiterate that the Mistborn Trilogy is not bad – it is just not outstanding. I think you strike a nerve when you say that perhaps we went in with too much expectations –  quite possibly, I might have been pleasantly surprised if I had never heard the name Sanderson before. 

We both say that the books miss ‘soul’ – perhaps we should try to explain. What does ‘soul’ mean to you in this context? 

That is a fair question… For me, I’d say it’s a lack of emotion. Or rather, a kind of elusiveness one encounters when trying to interpret emotion-related things. A certain randomness. I’m not sure if that clarifies anything?

To put it differently. A singer can hit every note perfectly and clearly, however, that doesn’t make a song emotionally gripping. It needs something that the listener can’t anticipate, something that gives the performance zest. Though I can honestly say Sanderson constructed his story well – singing clear notes, so to say – he didn’t impart any long-lasting emotions. As to why, I’m sure this will come to light when we’ll discuss his plots and characters.

I agree, I like your analogy. Mistborn very clearly shows the gap between an technically well constructed story and an emotionally touching one.I would argue that perhaps, the story is so neatly constructed, that at times it almost appears as if you can see the gears turning underneath the text – which brings us to the question, what is the text like?

Sanderson’s Style

One of the things Sanderson excels at, is his prose, I believe. It’s quick and it’s easy to read. Even when I didn’t really feel like reading but decided to do it anyway, Sanderson’s writing style helped me to make significant progress regardless. This also meant that I could quickly read through passages that I didn’t really care for, such as the extensive Allomancer action scenes. Because of his comfortable prose, it’s completely possible to read hundreds of pages in just a few hours.    


We agree here, definitely. Sandersons style is quite utilitarian – dare I say, workmanlike – with very few flourishes or metaphors, whilst at the same time not at all dense. It makes for quick reading, and because he has a tendency at times to state the obvious, you are invited to read at breakneck speed, and can get away with it. There are a lot of words in the Mistborn Trilogy, but I didn’t mind so much because the pages flip over quickly.

A less successful aspect of Branderson’s style would certainly be his tendency to repeat, a lot. For example, there is absolutely no need to constantly explain your magic system’s rules in detail throughout the whole trilogy. I got the gist halfway through the first chapters of the first book. I didn’t need the reminders in the second installment and I definitely didn’t need them in The Hero of Ages. Although I understand a writer’s desire to aid the reader in their reading journey, especially when it comes to strange worlds and rules, I rather experienced his repeated explanations as an insult to my intelligence.

I don’t know if I would call it an insult, but I do recognise the feeling – as I stated before, Sanderson does not shy away from stating the obvious or explaining the explicit. There is, of course, a tough balance to be struck between respecting your readers’ time and memory on the one hand, and making sure the reader understands the complex magic system that drives all of the action scenes and a good chunk of the plot in the later books on the other. I know Sanderson has written a number of essays on worldbuilding and fantasy writing, and one of his ‘laws’ is that the ability of a writer to solve a problem that one of his characters runs into through magic, is directly proportional to the reader’s understanding of the magic system. I think it’s a charming idea, but the result is that at times Sanderson feels a need to repeat himself. Personally, I think one of the most disappointing results is that nothing is ever allowed to be a mystery, and everything needs to be explained. As such, elements that could have added to the book’s atmosphere instead end up feeling mechanical. Sometimes I wonder whether this writing style is a result of overactive online discussion fora where every detail of a book is dissected, leaving writers with the feeling they will be roasted for leaving plot holes if anything is left unexplained.

I believe these things that you just named are in part responsible for why we felt his books lacked soul. I’m always a little bit wary when people state how certain things must be done, especially when it comes to art. Sure, there are ways that have been proven to work; narrative models, tropes etc. However, to look at these techniques as ‘laws’ not to be broken is a risky business. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use them, but if you use them, the real art is then to use them in such a way that the reader isn’t aware of it. 

As for your speculation that Sanderson might be influenced by overactive nit-picky discussion fora, I don’t hope that’s the case. No writer should ever feel the need to cater to that sort of analysis, as it doesn’t necessarily help the quality of a story. Of course, we are currently also thoroughly dissecting Sandersons writings, but I’ll never expect anyone to write a book that’s perfect in every way.

Well, the Mistborn Trilogy certainly isn’t, but if there’s one element where Sanderson gets some good marks….

Sanderson’s Worldbuilding

I think Sanderson has some really interesting ideas that result in very imaginative worldbuilding. The question posed on the cover of The Final Empire – “What if the dark lord won?” – is evocative, and speaks to his wish to give a fresh face to the genre. I have heard him say in interviews that he feels that Fantasy should be a genre with a huge variety of settings, because anything should be possible, but in practice he finds that the settings tend to be rather generic. I think that is a fair assessment, and really many of the worlds of modern fantasy stories could to some extent be interchanged without changing the plots much. Sanderson has done a great job of creating a world that is both different and inextricably linked with the story that is taking place inside it, in a way that other writers have not achieved. 

Sanderson built a world through an interesting mix and match of tropes, taking elements from the more standard medieval European settings, from Victorian England, and from post apocalyptic science fiction. To top it off, he built a unique hard magic system full of interesting rules and limitations, that takes the foreground more and more. Jop, what did you think of the magic system from a worldbuilding perspective?

When it comes to magic, I usually find soft magic systems are the most charming. The magic system in the Mistborn Trilogy is definitely a hard magic system, however,  but one I thought was interesting. The concept of specific metals that can be used for performing very specific supernatural abilities is not something I believe I encountered before in Fantasy. At least, not in a similarly precise way Sanderson developed it. 

I quite liked the spiritual reasoning behind the three different magic ‘schools’, even though it is a worldbuilding aspect that only becomes apparent quite late in the trilogy. The balance between allomancy (which grants powers), feruchemy (which stores powers) and hemalurgy (which steals powers) is refined, even though I wasn’t necessarily a fan of the cosmic scale behind it all. 

I’ll agree that the cosmic scale thing wasn’t my cup of tea either, but I think we shouldn’t let that distract us from just how novel the system is. Despite the action sequences being a bit of a chore to read through at times, I do really think that the magic system and worldbuilding are the stand out achievements of the trilogy. 

That said, there were also certain elements that I didn’t really buy in to – the most important of which is the koloss. In my – harsh – opinion, they were an unnecessary and poorly executed element of the world.  They are the stereotypical not-orcs, with some weird feature (they grow into their blue skin? What? How? Why? How does this make sense in the context of how we – after the third book – know they are created? Was there supposed to be any hint? What purpose does it serve other than to have them look weird?). The koloss are mentioned but not described in the first book, and I imagined the ‘koloss legions’ to be either elite troops like Dune’s imperial Sardaukar, or maybe some kind of mechanical army (what with metal being a source of magic and all). The info-dump scene were Sazed gets to describe a camp full of koloss at the start of the second book put me off reading it for a good month at least. A really big miss in a book that is otherwise characterized by its worldbuilding hits. Do you have any big hits or misses? 

It’s a small element, but I rather liked the running gag about how implausible people thought it was that plants were once green and contained flowers. It was an elegant but inseparable detailed result of Sanderson’s world in which constant mists and ashfall affected nature, but at the same time something that you don’t quickly think up yourself. Another testament that his worldbuilding skills are indeed praiseworthy.

As for any big misses, I am quite forgiving in general. As I’ve already mentioned, I was not particularly charmed by the whole cosmology part of the story. In comparison with the other aspects of the books it felt somewhat underdeveloped – something that became apparent in the rushed ending of the trilogy – and left me with a handful of practical questions. What was the original nature of Ruin and Preservation? Were they also humans once? Did their power reach across a whole universe, or just to this one planet for some reason? How and why? Despite all these questions, however, I know from experience these are common difficulties with cosmology in general, so I can forgive them. 

Sanderson’s Plots and Characters

If I were to guess Sanderson’s writing style in the terms of planning, pantsing and plantsing, I’m quite confident to call him a planner. His plots in this trilogy are clearly well thought out, something that also becomes apparent in his plot twists. Although I suspected to have found plot holes a few times, most of them were resolved (much) later on. This is evidence of a clear long-term vision in the author. 

However, just because it is cleverly constructed, didn’t necessarily mean I enjoyed all of the plot or its twists. I think I speak for us both if I say that The Final Empire was the strongest of the three books in this regard. The original setting (a world in which the dark lord won) and the plotpoint of overthrowing this practically invulnerable godlike dark lord were both unique and worked well together. The twist that the Lord Ruler may not have been the ultimate bad guy was similarly inspiring. The other books, dealing with petty politics, large armies and colossal stakes, missed the same spark, don’t you think?

I think you hit the nail on its head – The Final Empire had both a great premise and a  really cool execution. The double twist you mention – and I know we warned for spoilers, but here come few big ones – was great: I was constantly trying to rhyme Alendi’s diary in the codices in between chapters with the character of the Lord Ruler, only to find out in the final chapters that they weren’t the same person. Only to be surprised again when the Lord Ruler in his dying breath warns them of the evil the main characters will unleash by killing him. The plot ticked like clockwork.

I’m trying to think of why the other plots didn’t have the same effect on me. It may be that the twist at the end of The Well of Ascension was effectively the same as the one at the conclusion of The Final Empire – the heroes thought they did the right thing, but ended up making a mistake. Or maybe it is that the characters knew so little about the cosmology, which determined whether their choices in part two and three were good or bad, that it wasn’t as much of a shock when their assessments turned out to be wrong.

The fact that the carefully crafted twists and turns of the plot in The Well of Ascension and The Hero of Ages weren’t as satisfying is doubly disappointing, because Sanderson’s style is to sacrifice the moments that could build his characters to the overwhelming necessity of explaining his plot. There seem to be very few moments that are just about the character living their lives, doing the things that people do. And mind you – these are 800-page books! The plot is interesting, but becomes a lot less so when you don’t feel close to the people living through it. Though the story is supposed to be about Vin and Elend, especially Elend completely failed to come alive for me throughout the books.

Without a doubt, the characters are the weakest link of this trilogy. Although I didn’t quite dislike them with your passion, I had a hard time really caring about them. They were too subordinate to the plot, I believe. A low point for me in this area was Vin’s character arc in The Well of Ascension. Her personal conflict, to choose between the free life of a powerful mistborn (personified in the abhorrent character of Zane) or the more dependent life filled with morals, love and camaraderie (represented by Elend) lacked any real credibility. I never once doubted she would abandon Elend. Why? Because this conflict was forced by the plot to ‘spice matters up’, but the characters were never lifelike enough to sell it.

Although the lack of soul is painfully evident in Vin and Elend in particular because they are the main characters, the other characters suffer the same fate. In my experience, it happened regularly that Sanderson neglected his characters, just at the moment they had achieved interesting potential. Dockson, for example, Kelsier’s best friend and confidant? In the aftermath of Kelsier’s death and the realization of his dreams, Dockson could have played an exceptionally intriguing role in the narrative. Instead, he is written off passionless in only a few sentences. The same could be said for most other members of Kelsier’s crew. Unless the plot permits, there is little room for character development.

Just a side note, but might I also mention that the number of significant female characters can be counted on precisely one hand? 

I happen to have seen a Sanderson interview in which he acknowledges that last point and has admitted that he would change that if he were to write the story today. Maybe it shows that Sanderson has learned since the Mistborn Trilogy – and maybe that means he might also spend a few more words to flesh out his characters.

If that’s indeed the case – that his characters and their characterization get more love – I might just be urged to pick up another one of his books!

Religious Influences

It didn’t really register with me reading the first novel of the trilogy, but starting in the second book, the large role religion was going to play in the plot became more clear. That was also when it started to become more obvious that Sanderson himself was religious. Without going into depth (which dear Brandon has done for us himself), Sanderson is a devout practicing Mormon, who went on mission trips, etc. Full disclosure: I had a catholic upbringing but dropped the whole thing pretty fast when I started thinking for myself during my teens.

There are a number of instances where I feel Sanderson’s religious background shines through visibly. First of all, his choice of a dualistic monotheist religion with a prophesied saviour is much closer to real world religions than most fantasy, which tends to draw more inspiration from germanic/norse or roman/greek pantheons. This makes the drawing of biblical comparisons much easier. Secondly, I found it interesting to note that in the end, even though all religions contained knowledge that The Hero of Ages used to reconstruct the world, only one of them – the Terris religion – turned out to be true. This, too, feels like a bit of a departure from most fantasy stories, where writers often have elven, dwarven and human pantheons existing alongside each other, and unsurprisingly, this departure fits with modern christian religious dogma as well.

I was also somewhat surprised (not unpleasantly) by the increasing role of religion in these books. As a scholar in religious studies, I am always curious how other people deal with the concept of religion, especially in creative contexts. Even though I wasn’t ultimately blown away by how Sanderson handled the religious themes in the Mistborn trilogy, I suspect others might find them interesting enough. 

Also, to be fair to Sanderson, I believe I recognized some influences from East Asian ideas in his religious worldbuilding. For example, the ultimate amalgamation between Preservation and Ruin has some major similarities with the concept of yin and yang from Chinese philosophy. Also, one might argue that the concept of a deity sacrificing their own ‘life’ to enable the creation of humanity (with free will) is not particularly Biblical in nature.  

For me, Sanderson’s religious background was most obviously reflected in his strong attachment to the male-female binary in his worldbuilding, which felt mostly unlogical. Especially in the case of the kandra (a species of shapechangers) I just couldn’t fathom why they still cared for concepts like sex and gender. At a few times, it’s even explicitly mentioned when a kandra has or hasn’t constructed a sex organ for their body – even in the privacy of their secret society – even though they have no use for them. One could argue that the first few generations of kandra, because of their recent human heritage, would still cling to their previous genders, but this makes little sense for the kandra born ages later. By the same rules, koloss should also have retained a concept of gender, but that does not seem to be the case. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the Inquisitors.

I think you make a fair case, and I agree maybe I shoehorned in the notion that Sanderson’s influence is overwhelmingly Christian. But as you mention, his dedication to ‘traditional American family values’ is bright and clear at times, for me mostly in that he chose to have Vin and Elend – two characters neither of whom care about appearances or what others think of them, both busy saving the literal world – get married somewhere off-page. It makes no sense for these characters to want to be married, and there never seems to be a logical reason for them to spend the time and effort to do it. It is also never explained or mentioned anywhere. It is almost as if Sanderson couldn’t stand the idea of his characters being in a long-term relationship without a religious union. 

Another example, for me, is Sazed in the third book. Sazed loses his ‘faith’ and then spends most of the book going through all the religions that he knows to find the one that is true. He evaluates each critically, and decides to discard them if he’s unsatisfied. What is fascinating, however, is that Sanderson has Sazed discard the religions because he finds them internally inconsistent. And it is true that often, atheists will argue that it makes no sense that Christians follow some rules in the Bible but not others. But what never appears to show up in Sazed’s evaluations is what I expect to be by far the most common reason for atheists to dismiss religion: the fact that the teachings do not rhyme with what we see in the world around us. I did not leave the church because I couldn’t understand why Christians follow some of the Bible’s rules but not others, or because the Old and New testament paint a completely different picture of God; I left the church because the church tells me being gay or bisexual is bad, but that’s something that I can’t rhyme with the real world. I may be wrong, but I feel Sanderson wrote Sazed as a religious person would write an atheist, blatantly missing the core point of why people don’t believe. 

That’s an interesting perspective that you bring up. Ironically, from the very first scenes in which Sazed appeared, I’ve read him as an inherently religious character. In theory, he is supposed to be somewhat of a comparative religionist. However, the way in which he preaches his religions, hoping to sell them, shows a spiritual passion I have never encountered in real religious studies scholars. In a way, you could argue that science is Sazed’s religion, I suppose. His character arc in the last book essentially is all about the fact that he has fallen from his faith because of Tindwyl’s death. He struggles to recover his beliefs, which were so (spiritually) valuable to him in the first two books. If it was indeed Sanderson’s goal to write an atheist, I agree with you that his execution wasn’t very convincing. However, Sazed’s ultimate religious pluralist conclusion – that all religions contained an element of truth or worth – was something I liked and thought was a fitting ending to his arc, be he religious or atheist.

In Conclusion

I think we’ve discussed Sanderson’s The Mistborn Trilogy quite thoroughly by now – something I quite enjoyed doing with you, if I might say so – so perhaps it’s time to tie ends up.  

In summary, I think I can say we both think The Mistborn Trilogy consists of solid fantasy books. We both praise Sanderson’s overall prose, worldbuilding and plotting skills. On the other hand, we were both less convinced by the characters and Sanderson’s tendency to take the reader by the hand. Is there anything I’m missing, before we end our discussion?

No, I think that’s a fair assessment. I am, however, curious how all of you readers have experienced Sanderson – do you recognise our gripes, or do you feel we’re unfair to him? And if we were to give Sanderson another chance – what would you recommend?

Can a plot be too polished? Is The Mistborn Trilogy a good representation of Sanderson's capabilities as a writer? Is there something Peter and Jop missed? Let us know on our social media!

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